Dealing with a dysfunctional family is challenging. There are many definitions online as well as in books on what exactly is a dysfunctional family. A few descriptions might point to a lack of healthy boundaries and behaviors: verbal, emotional or physical abuse, poor communication skills, very little or lack of coping tools, negligence where children are put in situations that could be dangerous, or perhaps high or unrealistic expectations placed on a child’s shoulders.

Some research also points to an excessive need to be in control of their children (or each other in the parents’ case). Also, some dysfunctionality could stem from addiction, codependency or untreated mental illness in the home.

Overall, the common thread is a continual conflict and of instability in homes.

The outcome of this can cause a child to feel:

  • Untrusting of others.
  • Struggling with low self-esteem and self doubt more often than not.
  • May have various mental health symptoms linked to anxiety, depression, PTSD, personality disorders, and dissociative disorders.
  • Self-medicate via drugs and alcohol may happen to numb out feelings.

Therapy is a good outlet to tackle the mental blocks from childhood experiences. More often than not, if they are not brought to light, aired, felt, and acknowledged, it will leave the individual with a skewed perspective that can or will poison their adult life and make it hard to to function in a healthy way inward and outward.

Photo by Jordan Whitt / Unsplash 

Here are some tips to help create a safe space:

1. Distance Yourself: Limit the information you share with family members as well as distance yourself to give yourself some individual space. This can help keep you emotionally safe. Another good tip is to try to keep conversations to more general topics, as well as it helps to redirect the focus on conversations on them as much as can to keep things flowing and on a more superficial surface.

2. Build a Support System: Whether you meet supportive individuals through group therapy or some form of a 12-step program, select positive, uplifting ones who are not overly judgmental. Usually, associating with people who have experienced a similar trauma or dysfunction can help you better understand your own trauma as well as it can serve to validate things or events that didn’t feel right as a child.

3. Set Boundaries: Since healthy boundaries were not set at home while growing up, it will be challenging to have family members respect newly created boundaries you may set for them. There’s a good chance your boundaries will be violated or shrugged off lightly. A good tip is to try to change the subject or remove yourself form the conversation itself. To do this, here are some sentences that may help. You can say:

  • “Right now, I’m not interested in sharing about that, but I appreciate you asking. Tell me, what’s going on with (and insert topic you know they enjoy speaking about)?”
  • “I’m not comfortable talking about that, but I’d like to hear more about your (insert a topic that they like to speak about).”
  • “I’m going to get some fresh air, excuse me for a moment.”
  • “I need to run and make a quick call.”
  • “I have an appointment I need to head out for, but it was great catching up!”

4. Read a little or a lot about Dysfunctional Family dynamics to educate yourself further. By doing so, it will help reinforce the feelings pushed away or stifled, which at the time was a survival tool to keep you afloat of a chaotic or unstable home life.

5. Take Care of You: If you’re now an adult and you are no longer living with a dysfunctional family, you have the choice and freedom as an adult to decide if you want to continue seeing them or if you want to take a break while you work on yourself. Feelings of guilt, anger, confusion, and sadness can come up surrounding having to make that call. But sometimes, family events, get-togethers, or holidays can be too triggering, and if right now it’s not a good head-space time in life, you may want to forgo events. You could say something to the effect:

Right now, I’m not in the best place so I’m just going to bow out of the upcoming party (event, or trip). I’ve decided to take some space, but I’d love to catch up next time.

Photo by Julia Caesar / Unsplash 

Emotions and feelings that generally come up when growing up with a dysfunctional family are guilt, shame, anxiety, symptoms of depression, and post traumatic stress disorder. This is something thousands, if not millions, experience and is completely normal, having weathered a distrustful childhood. The coping skills then were not healthy and came from a younger-mind’s perspective and now as an adult, new coping skills, understanding, patience, learning to be kind to oneself, and other tools are something to be learned, and instilled. This takes time. Building a healthy toolbox comes one day at a time.

If you feel you need extra support or are struggling, seeking a therapist or counselor can help navigate your journey of self-growth and help further you along in becoming a healthier individual.

If you or a loved one needs guidance and support, visit us at or give us a call at 1-888-617-1050.